UAB archaeologists awarded Antiquity Prize for decade-long study of looting at ancient sites in Egypt

Satellite analysis like that conducted by Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., and Gregory Mumford, Ph.D., provides valuable intelligence for international policing of the illegal antiquities trade.

Written by: Tiffany Westry

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antiquity prize streamParcak and a colleague on the ground surveying a looting pit.University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., and associate professor Gregory Mumford, Ph.D., have been awarded the 2017 Antiquity Prize by Antiquity, a peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, published by Cambridge University Press.

Each year the journal awards a prize for the best article published the previous year. The journal’s editorial advisory board is asked to nominate a short list, from which the winners are chosen by the Antiquity Trust. Parcak and Mumford received the award for their journal article “Satellite evidence of archaeological site looting in Egypt: 2002–2013,” published in the February 2016 issue of Antiquity.

Using Google Earth, Parcak, Mumford, and collaborators David Gathings, Chase Childs and Eric Cline looked at satellite images from 1,100 archaeological sites in Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta between 2002 and 2013. The group found that looting escalated dramatically in 2009 with the onset of the global economic crisis, and intensified with the Arab Spring in 2011. The team also noted an increased volume of Egyptian artifacts sold at auctions around the world, suggesting that looting is driven by external demand as well as internal economic pressures.

Of the 1,100 archaeological sites monitored, the team found evidence of looting at 267 sites and counted roughly 200,000 looting pits. Archaeological excavations were being conducted at 12 of the sites, nine were ticketed tourist attractions, and three were UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“In a worst-case scenario, if the looting identified in this study continues at its current rate, data extrapolation indicates that all of Egypt’s 1,100 known archaeological sites and associated landscapes could be affected to varying extents by looting and/or encroachment by the year 2040,” Parcak wrote.

Satellite analysis provides valuable intelligence for international policing of the illegal antiquities trade by helping researchers predict the types and periods of antiquities entering the market. Since the article was published, the team has continued to work with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities to combat looting at archaeological sites. They are developing training tools for inspectors, as well as a joint field school in Lisht that will help train young Egyptians to preserve and protect sites.

In January, Parcak used her $1 million TED Prize to launch GlobalXplorer, an online crowd sourcing platform that allows anyone with an internet connection to analyze satellite imagery to discover and protect ancient sites.